Person of the Year: Chris Bartlett

Chris Bartlett

Chris Bartlett has been the executive director at William Way LGBT Community Center (WWCC) for a decade — a fraught and complicated decade that has also been the most tumultuous for LGBTQ people since the AIDS pandemic. The changes within those 10 years have demanded the kind of nuanced approach Bartlett has brought to the center. While other agencies have seen turnover and strife, Bartlett helmed the center with a calm, yet active hand.

Throughout his tenure at WWCC, Bartlett has created what he hopes has been an atmosphere of inclusion and outreach that has both broadened the scope of the WWCC and also helped to make it the focal point it should be for the diverse Philadelphia community.

This year, he expanded the center to address more and more issues impacting the community, securing two critical grants and setting up both the Trans Resource Center and the Leadership Pipeline.

Bartlett secured a $1 million grant from Gov. Tom Wolf for renovation and new construction of the center at 1315 Spruce Street in the heart of the Gayborhood. He explained how the work he has done over his years at WWCC and the manner in which the center has functioned “has developed a lot of political goodwill. We had a lot of political support for this grant. People do know the work we are doing and how much it is helping, how many people are being served.”

Bartlett enumerated who had helped in securing the grant, mentioning Senators Farnese and Street, Congressman Evans, Mayor Kenney, State Rep. Sims and many others. “We’re taking on the work of rebuilding our center to meet the growing and evolving needs of our diverse LGBT communities,” he said.

Bartlett explained how the rating from HRC with the perfect score for WWCC was a factor by highlighting nationally what WWCC is doing locally.

“It’s smart for political leaders to support us,” he said, noting of the grant, “It’s a big win.”

Doing this work was not what Bartlett had planned for his future. He trained in classics, with degrees in classics from the Ivy League Brown University and the University of Oxford in England. But his career as a classics professor was derailed by the AIDS pandemic.

A “Philadelphian born and bred,” Bartlett said that the AIDS pandemic “hit me personally in 1987.” The death and dying around him was too much — he joined ACT UP. “It turned me into an activist.”

Bartlett noted how local icons of activism — Barbara Gittings, Kiyoshi Kuromiya and Anna Forbes — influenced him, as did the queer liberation movement. Bartlett said he discovered “there was joy to be had in this community” and that embracing his gayness as well as activism was something “I felt I could dive into.”

Bartlett details how his activism and attachment to gay liberation was very much an embrace of “the intersection of movements.” That intersectionality included reproductive rights and anti-racism, fighting homelessness, as well as fighting AIDS. He said, “In ACT UP, all these issues are intersecting.”

It was ACT UP that also determined where he was going to live.

“I was not going to have any geographic angst,” Bartlett said. “My commitment was going to be the community and in this city.”

More than 30 years later, the community continues to receive the benefit of Bartlett’s decision.

As Bartlett evolved from a young activist to a seasoned elder, his mission has coalesced into one of “harmony and community.” He said that his role has grown into one of “mediator and mentor.” In a community, city and era whose multifaceted issues can lead to intense strife and demand nuanced resolutions, Bartlett is striving to be someone who can “jump into dissension and divisiveness and hopefully have something to contribute to help resolve whatever problem we are facing.”

Part of the work Bartlett is doing includes mentoring the next generation of activists and LGBTQ leaders. And that, Bartlett explains, often means knowing when to step back and allow other voices to be heard.

“How to be a humble elder,” Bartlett said, is often just knowing when to stay silent and “not say ‘Oh we tried that and it didn’t work,’ but to be very engaged without being condescending.”

Bartlett said, “Youth are not constrained — we have to be open to innovation; we have to trust them to run with it.”

Creating the Leadership Pipeline was among Bartlett’s most pivotal work in 2019. He said the need to be sure there would be activists and leaders to do the activist work for the next queer generation was imperative.

“Through the Leadership Pipeline, in partnership with IBA, DVLF and the Mayor’s Commission, we were able to place 20 graduates of a rigorous leadership development program on the boards of local LGBT and ally organizations.”

Bartlett said, “I have a long history of working on leadership development — mostly because I know strong communities depend upon new generations of leadership taking the reins. We always need new leadership.”

Over his decade tenure, Bartlett said, “One of the complexities and challenges has been negotiating so many identities.”

There can be conflicts, Bartlett said, but notes he has striven to have a diversity of volunteers and board members to create balance and inclusion. Another achievement for Bartlett in 2019 was establishing

the Trans Resource Center at WWCC. 

“This was inspired by the lifetime work of trans ancestors Charlene Arcila and Jaci Adams — both of whom were friends and colleagues of mine,” said Bartlett. “At the Trans Resource Center, we hope to create sanctuary — a peaceful respite — for trans people from the hostility at the White House, statewide and in the city.”

Bartlett said, “We learned about sanctuary from Juntos — the local activist organization addressing immigration activism. Our visionary Program Director Celena Morrison has already done a great job preparing the space, and we are thrilled to have it available for trans communities in the region.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.